At last season’s end it felt as if the Kamloops Blazers were a long ways away from the team that missed the WHL Finals by one game in 2012–13. The Blazers only managed 14 wins last year. They suffered from an anemic offence and gave up over 300 goals on their way to a last-place finish in the Western Conference.
Clearly, they needed to make some changes if they were going to get back to winning.
It started behind the bench. After putting head coach Dave Hunchak on a leave of absence last January and leaving the Blazers under the temporary helm of Guy Charron general manager Craig Bonner was able to lure Don Hay away from the Vancouver Giants. Hay—who won a Memorial Cup during his 10 years in Vancouver—had coached the Blazers from 1992 through 1995, winning two Memorial Cups. He and Bonner have a long-standing relationship, as Bonner was captain of the Hay-coached 1992–93 Kamloops squad. The two have also coached together and have now reunited to re-energize the Blazers.
"I think the players were really open to change," Hay says. "They’ve worked very hard since the start of training camp and they’ve really grown."
Nineteen games into the season, the Blazers are 9-8-1-1, good for fifth in the Western Conference. While the Kelowna Rockets have separated themselves from the pack in the Western Conference, the rest of the teams are bunched in the standings. That means the playoffs are a distinct possibility for every team—especially the Blazers. "We want to make the playoffs. That’s our No. 1 goal," Hay says. "I think that’s important, it’s the first step of changing the culture."
The Blazers have as storied a history as any team in junior hockey but over the past 13 seasons they have missed the playoffs three times and only advanced past the first round twice. They haven’t been to the WHL Final since 1998–99 when they lost to the Calgary Hitmen. Nine wins in 19 games doesn’t make them the favourites, but for Hay, it’s a good start. "You think about the Kamloops Blazers and you think about their winning tradition," Hay says. "Hopefully we can bring back some of that mentality and bring back the excitement in the city and be proud of the way we play the game."
Having coached against Kamloops while in Vancouver, Hay knew a little bit about the roster he was inheriting. He says he went in with an open mind about his players and looked to make positive changes. "We just tried to change a lot of things here, from the way we practice to the way we get our off-ice workouts," he said. "The whole structure was pretty well changed, I’m sure the on-ice systems and demands, and standards were different too. That’s a process you go through when you take over a team."
The Blazers roster was not devoid of talent. They returned one of the WHL’s most underrated players in Cole Ully, who scored 30 goals last season. This year he has picked up where he left off and has 26 points in his first 16 games. He currently sits in third in WHL scoring and has earned him a spot on the league’s team for the Subway Super Series. "What really impressed me about Cole was his hockey sense and how competitive he is," Hay says of his star player. "He can play different positions, he plays all critical minutes, five-on-five, power play, penalty kill. I really do believe he’s a little bit underrated but when given the opportunity he really makes a difference."
The Blazers did not make any big on-ice moves this off-season but they have infused a number of rookies into their lineup. These rookies have been productive so far. On top of that list is right-winger Deven Sideroff. The 17-year-old has been added to a line with Ully and Matt Needham and had used his speed to chip in 19 points in as many games. That’s enough to put Sideroff at the front of the league’s rookie scoring race and another reason for the Blazers to like their future.
Kamloops is not going to win the WHL Championship this season. But it’s obvious there has been an improvement this year and they’re heading in the right direction. Can they make the playoffs? "The key for us is to stay consistent, not have any bad streaks and just look after ourselves. Keep on improving," Hay says. "We’re showing teams that we can be competitive and when we all play well together we give our selves a real good chance of success."